BY RUSSELL MICKLER
The best writing tip I ever received was not to write.
It began with an essay, a critique of Chaucer’s ‘The Miller’s Tale’ from The Canterbury Tales. Mrs Lovejoy returned my paper savaged, bloodied with merciless, unkind annotations, insisting on a rewrite.
Passive, she wrote.
Mechanics. (Young, I’d yet to realize papers had gears.)
Viciously circled “-ly” words.
And, most egregious of all, my beloved semi-colons, smeared red into ordinary periods or commas.
I confronted her after class, and I’ll preface this by saying it was the eighties; Ferris Bueller was my patron saint.
- Since when were adverbs inadmissible? Schoolhouse Rock suggested otherwise. “Lolly-Lolly-Lolly…” (Yes, I sang the song.)
- Fragments? Run-ons? Passive voice? My subject was written in Middle English. And how am I to be reprimanded when Chaucer scantily used periods and relied on gratuitous semi-colons?
- Mechanics? We read Irving’s The Cider House Rules the previous quarter. Come to appreciate my style.
- I accepted full responsibility for my dangling modifiers.
“Okay, you might as well not write at all,” she said, flippantly handing the paper back.
Expecting more Hughes-esque banter and unprepared for outright apathy, I recoiled at the horror of receiving a zero and asked for clarification.
“You’re convinced you’ve nothing to learn. So enamoured are you with yourself, you’ll write scores of books only you will read.”
Her words stung like a curse. I saw myself seated in my study, its shelves laden with the culmination of my life’s work, unread, unappreciated, unknown, meaning nothing to anyone, my voice fading into the distant cosmos.
“If you intend to write for an audience,” she continued, “get used to criticism. Be prepared to adjust and adapt.”
I ruefully studied my paper.
“Right now,” she said, slowly leaning in for the kill, “you feel wronged. That’s normal. Your pride wrestles with my critique. Lie still, accept it, and you might learn how to write better.”
After that, I recall sulking out the door.
Begrudged, determined to prove I would not learn a thing, I reworked it that afternoon on my Commodore 64.
In my extensive experience as a ninth-grader, no teacher had ever disliked my writing. I was in honours English for heaven’s sake. Her scoring was like a haymaker to my identity.
Ripping the paper from my dot matrix to tear off its edges, I braced for round two.
The following day, I marched into her classroom, and – I swear – that woman grinned at me like the Grinch on Christmas Eve.
Once again, Mrs Lovejoy returned it, red as Lady Macbeth’s stained hands.
Strive for Meaning!
It took four rewrites before she accepted that assignment, and every subsequent paper received the same gruelling treatment.
“You could always not write,” she reminded me, but I was stubborn. I angrily redressed every assignment she returned.
It wasn’t until after a weekend VHS rental that I realized what was happening.
Throwing another senseless rewrite on her desk, I breathed, “I’m tired of waxing your cars, Mr Miyagi.”
She placed her palms together. “It is May, yet you remain unprepared for the Cobra Kai.”
It went on like this through the end of the academic year, until finally, on our last day and assignment, she simply wrote, “A.”
“You’ve always done A-work,” she winked, “but that’s not good enough, is it?”
Even today, when preparing another short story or contest, I’ll recall Mrs Lovejoy scrutinizing my work, returning my papers – pushing me, daring me to stop – and honing a passion for writing that’s left me with no other option but to write.
Thanks, Mrs Lovejoy.
About the Author
Russell Mickler has worked as a consultant in the technology industry since the early 1990s. Thanks to Mrs Lovejoy, he’s written and co-authored several tech-related books and fantasy stories. Black Anvil Books is Mickler’s imprint for flash, fantasy, and serialized fiction. www.black-anvil-books.com.
Russell Mickler is the winner of the June 2023 My Writing Journey Competition.